Since Borussia Dortmund installed Jürgen Klopp at the helm in 2008, the inventive gaffer has established a brand of football that combines atypical German efficiency with the thoughtful possesion of Barcelona, played at the breakneck speed of the Jamaican Olympic sprinting team. This was the blueprint that earned BVB two successive Bundesliga titles and the admiration of football lovers across the globe. Unfortunately, the refusal to deviate from this intoxicating style was also what caused the 1997 Champions League winners to finish at the bottom of their group in last year’s contest where their overindulgence was punished by Arsenal and two weaker (albeit smarter) sides, Olympique de Marseille and Olympiacos.
The refusal to deviate showed Dortmund’s inexperience in modern European play. Specifically, BVB failed to recognize the need to make changes when faced with minimal rest between league and European matches. In light of Tuesday’s match (and being placed in the Group of Death with titans Manchester City and Real Madrid), this recomendation was all the rage throughout Germany. Former Bayern Munich midfielder Stefan Effenberg summed up the criticism, “[y]ou cannot hit the gas like [Dortmund] do every three or four days over the course of the season.” So before the match journalists challenged Klopp – would he be changing his side’s style?
The former Mainz 05 striker appeared defiant: “We have defined our way of playing successful football and we will not change things too much for the Champions League,” Klopp said. “Our problems [last season] did not have much to do with our playing style but [were rather] a result of lacking experience.” Journalists latched onto this statement with blind vigor, running headlines of Klopp’s unwillingness to change despite last year’s crash out.
But amidst the clamor for change, many missed Klopp’s qualifier, “too much.” No overhaul was needed, just a slight tweak in approach.
That tweak came in the first half when the yellow and black pulled back the throttle just a bit. Against the total football of Ajax, Dortmund spend the first 45 minutes feeling out their opponent. This resulted in a relatively uneventful half of play but one that nevertheless magnified a second half that was quintessential Dortmund-style attacking football.
In the 49th minute Marcel Schmelzer served a low ball in to Marco Reus, who’s outside of the left-foot flick put Robert Lewandowski into the box. With the ball on his left foot the Polish striker cut back to his right, sending two Ajax defenders sprawling to the turf, before uncharacteristically scuffing his right-footed curler high and wide.
In the 57th minute it was Mario Gotze weaving by the Ajax defense before drawing a gift of a penalty to BVB. Up stepped Mats Hummels and the big center-back placed a weak shot to Kenneth Vermeer’s left that the Ajax keeper saved with relative ease. With each passing minute the tension inside Westfalenstadion rose, as did the tempo of Dortmund’s play.
The match remained scoreless until the 87th minute when Ilkay Gündoğan chipped a cross to Lukasz Piszczek who redirected his header across the box to Lewandowski, who had his man posted up brilliantly. With a deft trap and set-up touch, Lewandowski fired a right-footed shot into the back of the net, setting off celebrations throughout the Yellow Wall.
At the end of the day, it was not Dortmund’s sexiest win. But the tweak showed tact, growth and the flexibility needed to achieve the three points required to keep pace in the most difficult chess match in European football. Hopefully there’s more to come on October 3rd when BVB heads to the Etihad Stadium to take on Manchester City.